Ecocriticism is the study of literature and the environment from an interdisciplinary point of view, where literature scholars analyze texts that illustrate environmental concerns and examine the various ways literature treats the subject of nature. Some ecocritics brainstorm possible solutions for the correction of the contemporary environmental situation, though not all ecocritics agree on the purpose, methodology, or scope of ecocriticism. In the United States, ecocriticism is often associated with the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE), which hosts a biennial conference for scholars who deal with environmental matters in literature and the environmental humanities in general. ASLE publishes a journal—Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (ISLE)—in which current international scholarship can be found.
Ecocriticism is an intentionally broad approach that is known by a number of other designations, including “green (cultural) studies”, “ecopoetics”, and “environmental literary criticism” and is often informed by other fields such as ecology, sustainable design, biopolitics, environmental history, environmentalism, and social ecology, among others.
In comparison with other ‘political’ forms of criticism, there has been relatively little dispute about the moral and philosophical aims of ecocriticism, although its scope has broadened rapidly from nature writing, romantic poetry, and canonical literature to take in film, television, theatre, animal stories, architectures, scientific narratives and an extraordinary range of literary texts. At the same time, ecocriticism has borrowed methodologies and theoretically informed approaches liberally from other fields of literary, social and scientific study.
Cheryll Glotfelty’s working definition in The Ecocriticism Reader is that “ecocriticism is the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment”, and one of the implicit goals of the approach is to recoup professional dignity for what Glotfelty calls the “undervalued genre of nature writing”. Lawrence Buell defines “‘ecocriticism’ … as study of the relationship between literature and the environment conducted in a spirit of commitment to environmentalist praxis”.
Simon Estok noted in 2001 that “ecocriticism has distinguished itself, debates notwithstanding, firstly by the ethical stand it takes, its commitment to the natural world as an important thing rather than simply as an object of thematic study, and, secondly, by its commitment to making connections”.
More recently, in an article that extends ecocriticism to Shakespearean studies, Estok argues that ecocriticism is more than “simply the study of Nature or natural things in literature; rather, it is any theory that is committed to effecting change by analyzing the function–thematic, artistic, social, historical, ideological, theoretical, or otherwise–of the natural environment, or aspects of it, represented in documents (literary or other) that contribute to material practices in material worlds”. This echoes the functional approach of the cultural ecology branch of ecocriticism, which analyzes the analogies between ecosystems and imaginative texts and posits that such texts potentially have an ecological (regenerative, revitalizing) function in the cultural system.
As Michael P. Cohen has observed, “if you want to be an ecocritic, be prepared to explain what you do and be criticized, if not satirized.” Certainly, Cohen adds his voice to such critique, noting that one of the problems of ecocriticism has been what he calls its “praise-song school” of criticism. All ecocritics share an environmentalist motivation of some sort, but whereas the majority are ‘nature endorsing’, some are ‘nature sceptical’. In part this entails a shared sense of the ways in which ‘nature’ has been used to legitimise gender, sexual and racial norms (so homosexuality has been seen as ‘unnatural’, for example), but it also involves scepticism about the uses to which ‘ecological’ language is put in ecocriticism; it can also involve a critique of the ways cultural norms of nature and the environment contribute to environmental degradation. Greg Garrard has dubbed ‘pastoral ecology’ the notion that nature undisturbed is balanced and harmonious, while Dana Phillips has criticised the literary quality and scientific accuracy of nature writing in “The Truth of Ecology”. Similarly, there has been a call to recognize the place of the Environmental Justice movement in redefining ecocritical discourse.
In response to the question of what ecocriticism is or should be, Camilo Gomides has offered an operational definition that is both broad and discriminating: “The field of enquiry that analyzes and promotes works of art which raise moral questions about human interactions with nature, while also motivating audiences to live within a limit that will be binding over generations” (16). He tests it for a film (mal)adaptation about Amazonian deforestation. Implementing the Gomides definition, Joseph Henry Vogel makes the case that ecocriticism constitutes an “economic school of thought” as it engages audiences to debate issues of resource allocation that have no technical solution. Ashton Nichols has recently argued that the historical dangers of a romantic version of nature now need to be replaced by “urbanatural roosting”, a view that sees urban life and the natural world as closely linked and argues for humans to live more lightly on the planet, the way virtually all other species do.
In literary studies
Ecocritics investigate such things as the underlying ecological values, what, precisely, is meant by the word nature, and whether the examination of “place” should be a distinctive category, much like class, gender or race. Ecocritics examine human perception of wilderness, and how it has changed throughout history and whether or not current environmental issues are accurately represented or even mentioned in popular culture and modern literature. Scholars in ecocriticism engage in questions regarding anthropocentrism, and the “mainstream assumption that the natural world be seen primarily as a resource for human beings” as well as critical approaches to changing ideas in “the material and cultural bases of modern society.” Recently, “empirical ecocritics” have begun empirically evaluating the influence of ecofiction on its readers. Other disciplines, such as history, economics, philosophy, ethics, and psychology, are also considered by ecocritics to be possible contributors to ecocriticism.
While William Rueckert may have been the first person to use the term ecocriticism (Barry 240) in his 1978 essay entitled Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism, ecocriticism as a movement owes much to Rachel Carson’s 1962 environmental exposé Silent Spring. Drawing from this critical moment, Rueckert’s intent was to focus on “the application of ecology and ecological concepts to the study of literature”.
Ecologically minded individuals and scholars have been publishing progressive works of ecotheory and criticism since the explosion of environmentalism in the late 1960s and 1970s. However, because there was no organized movement to study the ecological/environmental side of literature, these important works were scattered and categorized under a litany of different subject headings: pastoralism, human ecology, regionalism, American Studies etc. British marxist critic Raymond Williams, for example, wrote a seminal critique of pastoral literature in 1973, The Country and the City.
Another early ecocritical text, Joseph Meeker’s The Comedy of Survival (1974), proposed a version of an argument that was later to dominate ecocriticism and environmental philosophy; that environmental crisis is caused primarily by a cultural tradition in the West of separation of culture from nature, and elevation of the former to moral predominance. Such anthropocentrism is identified in the tragic conception of a hero whose moral struggles are more important than mere biological survival, whereas the science of animal ethology, Meeker asserts, shows that a “comic mode” of muddling through and “making love not war” has superior ecological value. In the later, “second wave” ecocriticism, Meeker’s adoption of an ecophilosophical position with apparent scientific sanction as a measure of literary value tended to prevail over Williams’s ideological and historical critique of the shifts in a literary genre’s representation of nature.
As Glotfelty noted in The Ecocriticism Reader, “One indication of the disunity of the early efforts is that these critics rarely cited one another’s work; they didn’t know that it existed…Each was a single voice howling in the wilderness.” Nevertheless, ecocriticism—unlike feminist and Marxist criticisms—failed to crystallize into a coherent movement in the late 1970s, and indeed only did so in the USA in the 1990s.
In the mid-1980s, scholars began to work collectively to establish ecocriticism as a genre, primarily through the work of the Western Literature Association in which the revaluation of nature writing as a non-fictional literary genre could function. In 1990, at the University of Nevada, Reno, Glotfelty became the first person to hold an academic position as a professor of Literature and the Environment, and UNR, with the aid of the now-retired Glotfelty and the remaining professor Michael P. Branch, has retained the position it established at that time as the intellectual home of ecocriticism even as ASLE has burgeoned into an organization with thousands of members in the US alone. From the late 1990s, new branches of ASLE and affiliated organizations were started in the UK, Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand (ASLEC-ANZ), India (OSLE-India), Southeast Asia (ASLE-ASEAN), Taiwan, Canada and Europe. The emergence of ecocriticism in British literary criticism is usually dated to the publication in 1991 of Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition by Jonathan Bate.